Tag Archives: Benjamin Barber

Speaking of Cities…

Citiscope (a site I highly recommend to those readers who care about urban policy) has been focusing on Habitat III, the next major U. N. conference on cities.

Habitat III is to be held next month in Quito, Ecuador. For more than a year, global networks of mayors and local governments have been gearing up for what amounts to the Olympics of urbanism. Habitat III is arguably the world’s most important conversation about the future of cities. And it’s taking place at a time when rapid urban growth on all continents, especially Africa and Asia, makes that discussion more crucial than ever.

Officially known as the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III is a rare event in global policy circles — the one time every 20 years when heads of state and national ministers gather to discuss and debate urban policy. (The first Habitat conference took place in Vancouver in 1976.)

The gathering in Quito is expected to produce a sweeping but nonbinding global strategy on sustainable urbanization. Known as the “New Urban Agenda,” this strategy will include recommendations for fighting urban poverty, devolving authority to local governments and bolstering streams of municipal finance, among other issues. Diplomats are still negotiating the details, but once finalized in Quito, the document will join last December’s Paris climate agreement and other recent accords to create a global framework for sustainability.

The problem is that, thus far, U.S. Mayors are nowhere to be found. If the governance of cities is becoming increasingly central to the national and global future, “opting out” should not be an option.

In a different article, also posted to Citiscope, respected political scientist Benjamin Barber explains what he sees as the role of urban areas:

In my 2014 book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”, I proposed that cities may be to the future what nations were to the past — efficient and pragmatic problem-solving governance bodies that can address sustainability and security without surrendering liberty or equality. If, that is, they can work together across the old and obsolete national borders. And if they can assume some of the prerogatives of sovereignty necessary to collaboration.

In fact, cities are doing just this. A few years ago, the United Nations announced that a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, while economists recognize that 80 percent or more of global gross domestic product is being produced in cities. From the United Kingdom and China to the United States and Italy, authority is being devolved to cities.

One of the reasons that scholars like Barber have high hopes for cities is their recognition of the importance of civic trust (an essential element of social capital); polling shows that citizens’ trust in city governments remains high while, on average, only a third of citizens around the world say they trust their national governments. Two-thirds or more of those same citizens say they trust mayors and other local officials.

Although Barber doesn’t address it, I think one reason for higher levels of trust in city governments is the perception–largely accurate–that individual actors can influence local government. That perception is in stark contrast to the widespread conviction that ordinary citizens have no voice on the national stage. Much of the anger and hostility on display in our national politics comes from a feeling of powerlessness–a recognition that systemic and institutional forces are beyond the ability of average citizens to modify or control.

Cities, too, face institutional impediments.

In the United States, federalism has meant devolution of authority to states, not cities, and as a result, in states like Indiana that lack meaningful home rule, urban areas lack political power to decide their own fates. If the scholars who write at Citiscope and the political figures who support Habitat are right–if cities are going to be central to future governance– eliminating the barriers to genuine home rule will be critically important.

I don’t know about other cities in other states, but in Indiana, where cities are firmly in the thrall of our “overlords” in the state legislature, gaining the right to self-determination won’t be easy.


The Golden Mean

I’ve been on IUPUI’s faculty for nearly 15 years, and for the very first time, faculty offices are scheduled for repainting and (gasp!) new furniture. Since the desk I’ve used since I arrived has seen nearly as many birthdays as I have, I welcome the change.

The downside is that we all have to box up our books, files, pictures and the like so the movers can do their thing, and it is amazing–and daunting–to realize just how much…stuff…(aka crap) one can accumulate in 15 years. It’s particularly sobering to realize how seldom that crap gets consulted.

I did come across some interesting reading as I was weeding out my files of “background information.” Case in point, an essay by Benjamin Barber titled “A Failure of Democracy, Not Capitalism,” remarking on the passage of an anti-corporate-corruption measure in 2002. As Barber pointed out,

“..business malfeasance is the consequence neither of systemic capitalist contradictions nor private sin, which are endemic to capitalism and, indeed, to humanity. It arises from a failure of the instruments of democracy, which have been weakened by three decades of market fundamentalism, privatization ideology and resentment of government.”


Fundamentalism is problematic in all areas of national life, not just the economic sphere. As attractive as either-or formulations and beliefs may be–and let’s face it, possession of THE truth, THE answer, is undeniably seductive–such hard and fast, one-size-fits-all approaches just don’t work in the real world.  Unfortunately for market fundamentalists, capitalism requires regulation to ensure an even playing field; unfortunately for proponents of central government control, those regulations need to be carefully calibrated–too much is as bad as too little.

There are areas of our common life that require “socialism”–the communal provision of services like police and fire protection, sanitary sewers and roads, to give a few examples. There are other areas where government needs to tread lightly–retail sales, manufacturing, and other entreprenuerial activities requiring relatively minor rules protecting public health and safety. The level of government activity should depend upon the nature of the activity rather than rigid ideology.

The regulatory failures of the past decades have–predictably–spawned a movement intent upon “replacing capitalism.” Americans tend to lurch from one fundamentalism to another, and we don’t seem to recognize that such pendulum swings are unhelpful. Barber’s insight remains an important one; we don’t need to give up capitalism, which has served us well overall. We just need social and legal structures that channel its energies and control its corrupting tendencies.

The Greeks had it right when they advocated for the golden mean.